It’s not all about Wurtzel

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In her Op-Ed, “Bitter Ashes of Burned Brassieres” Elizabeth Wurtzel sounds a gloomy and despairing note about the state of contemporary feminism. Writing about the Geraldine Ferraro/Barack Obama tiff and the Eliot Spitzer resignation, Wurtzel wonders: “Am I the only one who feels that last week’s news events prove that the women’s movement has failed?”

To connect the bitter progressive in-fighting within the Democratic Party and the misbehavior of one state’s governor to feminism’s failures seems, well, a wild leap, even for Wurtzel. I’ve been a fan of Wurtzel for years; her book, “Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women,” had moments of stunning insight. And her first book, “Prozac Nation,” is likely to be read years from now by social historians not yet born, eager to understand middle-class adolescent anxieties in 1990s America. But as much as I have admired Wurtzel’s work in the past, her Op-Ed struck me as both confused and silly.

Wurtzel cites a raft of statistics to indicate that women are still not equal to men, noting that even now, women make only 80 cents to a man’s dollar, and that only 16% of corporate officers are women. Valid concerns, yes, but hardly proof that feminism has failed. Women were making fewer than 60 cents on the dollar when I was in elementary school; we can agree that the pace of change has been heartbreakingly slow while still celebrating that change has happened. But Wurtzel is in a strangely defeatist mood, perhaps playing on the mainstream media’s longing to declare feminism dead. And most maddeningly, she plays the navel-gazing game of placing the blame for the lack of progress on, you guessed it, women.


Wurtzel seems to think that she, Naomi Wolf and Katie Roiphe gave rise to “Girls Gone Wild.” But as good and as important as much of Wurtzel’s work -- and that of her generation -- was, it neither defined nor ruined feminism. Wurtzel massively exaggerates her own importance when she suggests that the movement hasn’t been the same since she got out of the game, or when she laments that she somehow failed.

The Third Wave is in fact going strong. Even without Wurtzel riding the crest, other newer, more fundamentally optimistic voices have emerged. A new generation of young feminists, schoolgirls when “Prozac Nation” came out, are writing books. They aren’t nude on the cover, but they’re not shy. Jessica Valenti and Amanda Marcotte (both of whom have published highly successful women’s rights primers within the past year) are just two young feminists who have become the public face of a 175-year-old movement that has achieved immense successes and has a bright future.

Suggesting that feminism has failed because it hasn’t eradicated misogyny is like complaining that the Civil War was for naught because racism still endures. Yes, it is often easy to get discouraged, both by what remains to be done and by the vocal and often vicious opposition of those fundamentally opposed to women’s equality. There is reason to be frustrated but reason too to be deeply optimistic. My women’s studies classes at Pasadena City College are packed, as are those of my colleagues. Wurtzel would be pleased to know that far more of my students identify as feminists today than did 10 years ago, when she was on top of the publishing world.

Feminists today are fighting a multi-front war against everything from global poverty to the hyper-sexualization of the young. Though I sure hope we’re not actually going to be in Iraq for 100 years, as John McCain suggests, I appreciate the Arizona senator’s willingness to think long-term. Those of us engaged in a different fight with a different enemy would do well to adopt a bit of McCain’s cheerfully pugnacious confidence that no matter what, no matter how long it takes, we will prevail.

Elizabeth, I’ll bet you’ve got another book in you. But please, don’t write a tired mea culpa about all the things that your generation got wrong; it’s not all about you. Use that acid prose of yours for the cause again. And spend some time reading younger feminist writers; spend a day looking through the feminist blogosphere. In this fragile and uncertain world, young women are the ones who most need an active and inspired feminist movement that offers them choice and opportunity. Your pensive defeatism does them no good.

Hugo Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College. He blogs at